The Mysterious House

When he said the house was “mysterious,” Papá set my imagination racing. I had imagined a dark, dank two-story English manor house, walls shrouded in thick ivy, hiding thousands of long-legged spiders. I imagined looking up as we arrived and noticing a boarded-up window high up near the chimney stack—a secret room that no staircase in the house led to. I imagined a neighbor nodding sagely and confessing that the window was a mystery, then asking ominously if I had heard what had happened to the previous tenants, a strange family.

The actual house was very different. It was a simple low-rise square box with a tarred roof. It looked more like a compromise with reality than with architecture. The walls had been whitewashed, though the job looked half-finished.

I wandered into the house half-naked, wrapped in a huge towel with the price tag still attached. I was wet and my whole body itched from the pine needles. Papá and Mamá were coming and going, bringing in shopping bags and going out to fetch more. In an attempt to keep the Midget occupied—he was more dangerous when he tried to help with family chores than when he skived off—they had sat him in front of the TV, an ancient Philco with a rabbit-ear aerial; the knobs fell off as soon as you touched them.

The house was full of mismatched cast-offs and secondhand furniture in different styles and colors. The living room alone had a fake Louis XV sofa and two wooden chairs—one pine, one mesquite. The coffee table was made of wicker and the TV stand was orange Formica.

Papá stood captivated before a broken grandfather clock. He slipped his hand inside the case and ding, dong, ding sounded the chimes—a little ominous, a little magical.

All houses retain something of their former residents. People shed traces of themselves everywhere they go, the way we constantly shed and renew our skin without even noticing. It doesn’t matter how efficient the movers were, or how thoroughly the house was cleaned. The floors might smell of wax polish and the walls might be freshly whitewashed, but a vigilant eye will still detect the clues left by history: the floor, worn where it has been walked on; a dark groove on the windowsill where someone set down a cigarette as they gazed out at the gardens. Marks on the floor indicated where the original furniture had once stood.

We didn’t know anything about the people who owned the house. All Papá told us was that it had been lent to some people and they were now lending it to us. Maybe this was where the mystery lay. What was the logic behind such generosity? Were these cigarette burns made by the owner or by one of the brief tenants of the house? Why were there so many signs that the house had been recently occupied: a jar of mayonnaise in the fridge that was still within its best-before date, the March issue of a magazine? Who were the last tenants here, how long did they live here, and what had forced them to leave?

Still dripping wet, I started to look for hidden clues. Mamá said I looked like a ghost in my big white towel and told me to dry myself right away before I dripped water all over the house.

First I explored the living room and dining room, opening all the cupboards and all the drawers. I didn’t find any personal items. One of the drawers was lined with a piece of paper that fascinated me; it was covered with a magician’s props: top hats, white rabbits, magic wands. I thought of Bertuccio’s word, the game of Hangman, and I wondered where I’d put the piece of paper he had scribbled the word on. I thought I remembered stuffing it into my trouser pocket and that calmed me.

There was an old radiogram with a record player that looked even cheaper than the cabinet it was in. The bottom shelf was full of singles. There was nothing I liked; it was mostly stupid instrumental stuff by Ray Conniff and Alain Debray, along with a bunch of singers I’d never heard of like Matt Monro and some guy with a name like a tongue-twister called Engelbert Humperdinck. It was Engelbert’s record that slipped out of its sleeve and fell to the floor.

I bent down to pick it up and noticed something odd underneath the radiogram. It looked like a scrap of paper that had slipped down behind the cabinet and got stuck between the skirting board and the wall.

It was a postcard of Mar del Plata: a typical photograph of the rambla. It was dated that summer, the summer of ’76. The sentenceswere simple and the handwriting was terrible. “My dear little Pedro, we hope you are having a lovely holiday. It’s good to have fun once in a while. Tell your mamá you can come stay with us for a few days if you like. If you need anything, just call. You can both come and stay. You know how much we love you. Xxx” and it was signed Beba and China.

I wondered who Pedro was, whether he was a kid as the postcard made it sound. But the line I found most disturbing was: It’s good to have fun once in a while. Was this Pedro a really serious kid, orwas he “special” (deformities, extrasensory powers, pustules all over his body, the sort of thing that makes a family lock their son up in an attic so no one ever sees him)? Or was there some tragedy in his past? A tragedy that still loomed over him, much to the regret of Beba and China?

I took the postcard with me, a damp ghost seeking the privacy of his room.

The Swimming Pool

The quinta Papá had borrowed was on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. It had a kidney-shaped swimming pool surrounded by flagstones. The water was not exactly what you might call clean. It had a Citroën-green tinge, and the surface of the water and the bottom of the pool were covered with leaves that had fallen from the trees. Getting the leaves off the surface was easy. There was a net with a long handle specially designed for the purpose. The leaves on the bottom of the pool were a different matter; they had rotted into a slimy gloop we had to walk on.

As soon as we arrived, I asked Papá if I could go for a swim. Papá, obviously, glanced at Mamá. She made a disgusted face. What the swimming pool contained was not water, but something like a soup of bacteria, microorganisms, and decomposing vegetation. But that afternoon, the April sun was still beating down, and Mamá owed me one because of the whole Bertuccio thing.

I didn’t have a swimsuit with me, but I dived in anyway—in my underpants. The water was cold and slightly soupy. When I tried to stand on the bottom, my feet slithered around as though the bottom were covered in cream. It was better to keep swimming, even if all I could do was doggy paddle.

I had never really been interested in style. Most boys learn the front crawl so they can race, or they learn something showy like the butterfly so that they can splash people on the side of the pool. But what I liked best was staying underwater. I’d hang on to the bottom of the ladder and exhale all the air in my lungs, bubble by bubble, until there was nothing left, and then lie on the bottom with my tummy pressed against the tiles for a few seconds before shooting back to the surface for air.

The things my mother thought were disgusting about the pool were exactly the things that most fascinated me. The green tinge, the shifting rays of light, made it easy to pretend that I was at the bottom of the ocean. The leaves and the branches suspended in the water gave a sense of depth to my underwater adventure, the long-legged insects diving like me but with more grace. There were curious formations all along the waterline, countless clusters of tiny translucent eggs. And the dark slime at the bottom—a mixture of moss and decaying leaves—added to the feeling of being at the bottom of the sea.

People say that being underwater stirs memories of the place where we were conceived and spent our first nine months. Being surrounded by water rekindles sensations we first felt in our mothers’ wombs: the weightlessness, the languid, muted sounds. I’m not about to argue with this reasoning, but I prefer to believe that the pleasure of being underwater has another explanation, less Freudian and more in keeping with the history of our species.

When, at the dawn of life, our ancestors left their aquatic environment, they took the water with them. The human womb replicates the water, the weightlessness, the salinity of our erstwhile ocean habitat. The concentration of salt in the blood and in bodily fluids is the same as that in the oceans. We abandoned the sea some four hundred million years ago (by my chronology), but the sea has never abandoned us. It lives on in us in our blood, our sweat, our tears.

We Find A Dead Body

The next day, when me and the Midget were finally allowed to go down to the swimming pool, we found someone had got there before us. Floating among the leaves, stiff as a board, was a huge toad.

“I’m not going in there anymore,” said the Midget.

I used the net to fish out the toad. It was dead, its feet splayed, ready to be put on the barbecue.

Toads are vile, horrid creatures. Consider their beady eyes, cruel and black as obsidian. Consider their cold, clammy skin covered with ridges and pustules, the webbing between their toes, the almost human agility of their back legs….

“Once upon a time we were just like that toad,” I said.

“Don’t start,” said the Midget.

“No, it’s true, thousands of years ago. We lived in the ocean and we crawled out to try our luck on land. First we stuck our heads out, then we crawled out and lay on the beach for a while.”

“I’m telling Mamá.”

“Some species stayed in the water and they’re still aquatic; some got used to both and they became amphibians, like toads, who spend half their time in the water and the other half on land. If they stay in one place for too long, they die, like this one.”

“Can a toad drown?’

“This one obviously saw the pool and jumped in thinking it was a pond or a lake and then realized he was stuck. Ponds and lakes have a bank, so you can go in gradually and get out gradually. Swimming pools are different—either you’re in or you’re out. And toads don’t know how to use ladders.”

“We have to bury him.”

“You’re right.”

“But first we have to hold a wake for him. Grandma Matilde says the wake is the most important part.”

“She only says that because she likes parties.”

“Abuelasays you have a wake for someone to make sure the person is dead and not just asleep.”

“That’s just an old wives’ tale. How could anyone sleep with all their relatives bawling in their ear?”

“What’s the difference between a wake and a vigil?”

“None, I think.”

“It has to be that at a wake, they’re trying to wake the dead person and at a vigil they’re just … they just vigil. Are you sure it’s dead? What if it’s just asleep?”

I picked the toad up by one leg, dangling it in front of the Midget’s face. He ran off howling and only stopped when he got to a safe distance.

“Actually, he looks a lot like you,” I said.

“Liar!” the Midget yelled from afar.

We picked a shady spot at the foot of a tree. I went and found a spade in the shed and started digging a hole. While I was digging, I went on explaining to the Midget all the stuff Señorita Barbeito had taught us with her illustrations and the documentary, about how after the first amphibians, species evolved who could only absorb oxygen directly from the atmosphere and live on land, and about specialized habitats and stuff like that. The Midget glared at me suspiciously, because he couldn’t believe that all vertebrates shared common characteristics.

“Frogs have a sense of taste just like hens, honest, I swear. If you peel the skin off a chimpanzee it looks just like a huge frog; they even smell the same. You’re lucky you have a big brother to explain all this stuff to you.”

As a rule, reality and all its trappings are more improbable than any fiction. What writer would have dreamed up the Komodo dragon or tonsils or the weird way we go about reproducing? What imagination could have thought of having coral reefs made by tiny animals excreting calcium from their bodies? Who would have the nerve to create a world like ours, ruled over by the descendants of toads and frogs and salamanders and newts?

During the digging and the burial, the Midget said nothing; he listened to what I was saying, a gleam of suspicion in his eyes. But in the end, something I said must have got through to him, because after we had leveled off the grave, he placed stones on the little mound and asked me if toads go to heaven, too.

A Foolproof Plan

That night another toad drowned in the swimming pool. Without even waiting for breakfast, me and the Midget decided to put a stop to this.

It was tempting to create a physical barrier to stop the toads from getting into the water, a solution as drastic as it would be effective. But I didn’t want to alter the course of their lives, to usurp the preeminent role of Destiny. Besides, the swimming pool might be of crucial importance to the toads without my knowing—it might be full of their eggs.

Consequently we opted for a middle way, which also had the benefit of being practical. Using an old wooden board we found in the shed and a length of wire, we managed to make a diving board that worked in reverse. Whereas diving boards were designed for men to launch themselves into the water, our reverse diving board would be used by toads to launch themselves onto dry land.

I used the wire to attach the board between the handrails of the ladder. This way, one end of the plank stuck out into the air. The other end dipped below the surface of the water.

Until now, if a toad fell into the pool it was bound to die. It would swim around, exhausted, searching vainly for a way out, crashing into the sides of the pool until finally it went under. The reverse diving board offered the toads the way out that they hadn’t had up until then. If they swam up to it, they could clamber onto the plank and breathe and they could climb up to the other end and leap into the long grass whenever they wanted, as often as they wanted.

Some of them would still die. They wouldn’t notice the plank, or they wouldn’t understand its potential. But the lucky toads would use the reverse diving board to save themselves, and the cleverest toads, hearing the word “Eureka” in their tiny brains, would save themselves a second time, and a third time. Their offspring (I was still a Lamarckian back then) would be born with an innate “Eureka” and they would know what to do, what to look for whenever they fell into this swimming pool which had proved so lethal to their forebears.

“When you have no choice but to change, you change. That’s what Señorita Barbeito told me. It’s called the principle of necessity. The toads have to change so they won’t die. All they need is a chance,” I explained to the Midget.

“D’you think that we’re as disgusting to God as toads are to me?” he asked.

“Right, that’s it,” I said, giving the wire a last twist.

All that was needed now was time.

Cyrus and the River

When one of his favorite horses drowned while attempting to cross it, Cyrus the Great, king of the Persians, furious with rage, vowed to humble the river Gyndes. He stopped his army, who were marching on Babylonia, and forced his soldiers to divert the course of the river, digging 360 trenches to channel the water away. Cyrus wanted the waters to dissipate onto the plain, pooling in swamps and marshes, and for the original riverbed to run dry. The extent of the humiliation he inflicted on the river was precise: At its deepest point, the river Gyndes was not to come above a woman’s knee.

This story is usually told to emphasize the power of Cyrus, the king who mutilated a river, who had his soldiers work like slaves to avenge a horse. The leader of the most powerful army in the world, whose hail of arrows could eclipse the sun, Cyrus would have punished the sun for its envy, or the moon, or the seas.

My response to the story of Cyrus was always different. Even as a kid, I thought Cyrus was ignorant and stupid. A river can’t murder someone, let alone be malicious; a river is just a river. It was stupid to jeopardize his campaign on a whim, making his men run the risk of injuring themselves as they dug the trenches, reducing their effectiveness with their bows and arrows and their swords. The story doesn’t say as much, but some of the soldiers must have died during the digging, making his revenge all the more costly. No horse would ever receive a more bizarre tribute.

Over the years, my view of Cyrus ceased to be quite so black and white. At first Cyrus was an exotic prince with braids in his beard, who spoke a barbaric language and whose decisions could be understood only in the context of the Olympian logic of great kings and warriors. Then time passed (there are rivers that even Cyrus could not stop) and when I went back and read the story of Cyrus again, he didn’t feel alien or unfathomable. He seemed like a lot of people I knew, people with whom I shared a human frailty: the tendency to accumulate power without wondering why or how to use it. People who have Cyrus’s power (military, political, economic) always forget that with power come responsibilities; they prefer to believe that evil exists only in other people. Diverting a river is easier than facing the truth; Cyrus did not want to acknowledge the fact that his horse would not have drowned if he had not forced it to try and cross the river.

I’ve known a lot of Cyruses in my life. Some of them now only appear in books nobody ever reads. Others walk the same streets, breathe the same air as we do. And though they now live in palaces and people pay them tribute, time will do to them what it did to Cyrus. Men who accumulate power and misuse it are like coins with only one face; they have no currency in any market.

I was thinking about the story of Cyrus as we worked on the reverse diving board. The fact that there was no obvious connection between the two ends of the plank did not mean no connection existed; we don’t see the network of roots that keeps the tree anchored in the ground, but it’s there just the same.

But, I admit, I came to no conclusions. I like to think that the way in which others had forcibly diverted the course of my life back then had conferred on me a compassion beyond my years. I like to think that I was better than Cyrus, that I assumed responsibility for the death of the toads and respected the existence of the river. I like to think I was trying to act according to the wisdom of nature, doing no more than nature might have done in toppling a tree whose branches might dip into the swimming pool. At the time I thought none of these things, preoccupied as I was by The Invaders and Houdini, but that does not mean these things did not contribute to my actions. If I have learned anything in life, it is that we do not think only with our brains. We think with our bodies, too, with our emotions; we think with our concept of time.

On the face of it, the fact that a few pages later, Cyrus dies and has his head cut off and plunged into a bath of blood has no connection with the story of the river Gyndes. And yet something tells me that the truth is not so simple. We see with more than our eyes; we think with more than our brain.

What I Knew

When you’re a kid, the world can be bounded in a nutshell. In geographical terms, a child’s universe is a space that comprises home, school, and—possibly—the neighborhood where your cousins or your grandparents live. In my case, the universe sat comfortably within a small area of Flores that ran from the junction of Boyacá and Avellaneda (my house) to the Plaza Flores (my school). My only forays beyond this area were when we went on holiday (to Córdoba or Bariloche or to the beach) or occasional, increasingly rare visits to my grandparents’ farm in Dorrego, in the province of Buenos Aires.

We get our first glimpses of the big wide world from those we love unconditionally. If we see our elders suffer because they cannot get a job, or see them demoted, or working for a pittance, our compassion translates these observations and we conclude that the world outside is cruel and brutal. (This is politics.) If we hear our parents bad-mouthing certain politicians and agreeing with their opponents, our compassion translates these observations and we conclude that the former are bad guys and the latter are good guys. (This is politics.) If we observe palpable fear in our parents at the very sight of soldiers and policemen, our compassion translates our observations and we conclude that, though all children have bogeymen, ours wear uniforms. (This is politics.)

Given my circumstances, I had a much greater formal experience of politics than children my age in other times and places. My parents had grown up under other dictatorships, and the name of General Onganía came up in stories throughout my childhood. Would I have been capable of identifying this bogeyman? My parents called him La Morsa(The Walrus) so I associated him with that crazy song by the Beatles. I had gleaned all the essential details from a quick glance at a photograph: He had a peaked cap, a huge moustache; you could tell from his face that he was a bad guy.

I remember that at first I loved Perón because my parents loved Perón. Every time they mentioned El Viejo(The Old Man) there was music in their voices. Even Mamá’s mother, my abuelaMatilde, who was a snooty reactionary, gave Perón the benefit of the doubt because, as she put it, why would the Old Man return from exile in Spain at the age of seventy-something unless he was motivated by a desire to put things right? But something must have happened, because the music changed, became more hesitant and then more melancholy. Then Perón died. The rest was silence.

(Around about this time, Grandpa and Grandma went to Europe for the first time and brought us back many souvenirs, including a catalog of the Prado collection. I used to look through it all the time, but after my first time, I was careful to skip the page depicting Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Children, because it terrified me. Saturn was a hideous old giant; in his hand he held the body of a little boy whose head he’d already bitten off. I remember thinking that Saturn and Perón were the two oldest people I’d ever seen. For a while, Saturn alternated in my nightmares with the River Plate shirt I got from Tío Rodolfo.)

After that point, things get confused. There were kidnappings, shootings, and bombings. The Old Man’s supporters were among the victims and the victimizers. But there were some people about whom there could be no doubts. “Isabelita,” Perón’s widow, spoke in the same high-pitched voice that ventriloquists use for their puppets. López Rega, her right-hand man, looked suspiciously like Ming the Merciless (the bad guy from Flash Gordon) but with shorter fingernails and no beard. Everything else seemed pretty gray to me. When I found out that some trade union leader called Rucci had been murdered, I was confused. Was I supposed to feel happy or sad? I never worked it out. What was significant was that he had been murdered a few blocks from our house, in the middle of Flores, on a corner near where I lived. If I hadn’t taken my normal route to school that day, I might easily have walked past it, heard the shots and seen the blood.

The murder of Rucci hadn’t happened in the big wide world beyond my universe, the world I only got to see when we went on holiday, when I went to the cinema downtown, or when I watched television: He had been gunned down in “my” world, the area that stretched from my house to my school. One way or another, I must have realized that evil is no respecter of borders and makes no exceptions for individuals.

This is politics.

When the coup d’étatcame, in 1976, a few days before the school term started, I knew straight off that things were going to get ugly. The new president had a peaked cap and a huge moustache; you could tell from his face that he was a bad guy.

A Scientific Digression

That April morning, Señorita Barbeito closed the classroom blinds and showed us an educational film. The film, in washed-out colors, with a voice-over by a Mexican narrator, discussed the mystery of life, explaining that cells came together to form tissue and tissues came together to form organs and organs came together to create organisms, though each was more than the sum of its parts.

I was sitting (to my frustration, as I’ve said) in the front row, my nose almost pressed against the screen. I only paid attention for the first few minutes. I registered the fact that the Earth had been formed in a ball of fire forty-five hundred million years ago. I remember it took five hundred million years for the first rocks to form. I remember it rained for two hundred million years—that’s some flood—after which there were oceans. Then, in his deep voice and his thick Mexican accent, the narrator started talking about the evolution of species and I realized he had skipped the bit of the story between the Earth being barren and the first appearance of life. I thought maybe there was a section of the film missing and that this was why the Mexican kept banging on about mystery. By the time I’d finished thinking this and tried to go back to the film, I’d lost the thread, so I didn’t understand anything after that.

But this business of the mystery of life stuck with me. I raised some of my questions with Mamá, who explained to me about Darwin and Virchow. In 1855 Virchow had proposed “omnis cellula e cellula” (“all cells from cells”), thereby stipulating that life was a chain whose first link, Mamá had to admit, was not a trivial matter. It was also Mamá who filled in some of the holes in the Mexican narrator’s calendar. She explained that the first single-cell life forms appeared on Earth thirty-five hundred million years ago in the shallow oceans, produced by the longest thunderstorm in history.

Other things I discovered later while I was living in Kamchatka among the volcanic eruptions and the sulfurous vapors. I discovered, for example, that we are made up of the same tiny atoms and molecules as rocks are. (Surely we should last longer.) I discovered that Louis Pasteur, the man who invented vaccinations, conducted experiments that proved that life could not appear spontaneously in an oxygen-rich atmosphere like that of our Earth. (The mystery was getting bigger.) Later, to my relief, I discovered that a number of scientists contend that in the beginning the Earth had no oxygen, or only trace amounts.

Sometimes I think that everything you need to know about life can be found in biology books. They discuss the way that bacteria reacted to the massive injection of oxygen into the Earth’s atmosphere. Until that point (two thousand million years ago, according to my chronology), oxygen was fatal to life. Bacteria survived because oxygen was absorbed by the planet’s metals. When the metals were saturated and could absorb no more, the atmosphere filled with toxic gas and many species died out. But the bacteria regrouped, developed defense mechanisms, and adapted in a way that was as effective as it was brilliant: Their metabolism began to require the very substance that, until then, had been poisonous to them. Rather than die of oxygen toxicity, they used oxygen to live. What had killed them became the air that they breathed.

Perhaps this ability that life has to turn things to its advantage doesn’t mean much to you. But let me tell you that in my world, it has meant a lot.

Ours Was the Marsh Country

For centuries, no one wanted to settle the land where Buenos Aires now stands.

The native peoples turned their backs on it, preferring the green pampas to the insalubrious air of the marshes, this zone that is neither sea nor land, nor anything. When the conquistadors arrived by sea, the natives attacked them more out of curiosity than anything else and finally left them to their own devices, knowing well how things would turn out for them. Locked up in their fortresses, the Europeans succumbed to plague and starvation until they were finally forced to eat each other. The land on which the city stands retains the memory of these cannibals. I’m not sure whether this was an isolated incident or whether it was a sign of destiny.

When they aspired to glory, the indigenous peoples of the continent chose the other ocean, the Pacific. Lima was the golden city of the Incas while Buenos Aires was still a swamp. And when Europeans set up military outposts in South America, they, too, preferred the line that runs from México with the Peruvian high Andes. Buenos Aires was a last resort, a city beyond the pale, the last bastion of civilization standing on the frontier of barbarism. Or was it beyond that frontier, capital of a savage kingdom?

All we know for certain is that no one wanted to live in Buenos Aires. Even the name was like a tasteless joke. The air was unhealthy, heavy and humid. It was like breathing water. Oxen and carts sank into the mud. This oppressive weather still reigned when, in 1947–48, Lawrence Durrell, in his letters from Buenos Aires, described the area as “large, flat and melancholy … full of stale air,” where the powerful fought over meager resources and “the weak are discarded…. Anyone with an ounce of sensitivity is trying to get away from here—including me.” Lest there be any doubt about the malign influence the city had upon his soul, Durrell also wrote: “One’s feelings don’t rise in this climate, the death-dew settles on me.”

To the imperial powers of the eighteenth century, Buenos Aires looked—on paper—like a marvelous opportunity. It was the last port on the Atlantic seaboard before Cape Horn and offered access to a network of rivers that connected it with the heart of the continent. Rivers meant trade and trade would bring wealth, civilization, culture. But in practice Buenos Aires was a nightmare. The River Plate offered scant depth, making it difficult for large ships to dock, and though there were other rivers, they presented even greater navigational problems. It was at this point that the dichotomy between the idea of Buenos Aires and the reality of Buenos Aires became apparent, a dichotomy that has never been resolved: The conflict between what we might be and what we are leaves us paralyzed, a ship run aground on a muddy spit of land.

Sometimes I think that everything you need to know about life can be found in geography books. The result of centuries of research, they tell us how the Earth was formed, how the incandescent ball of energy of those first days finally cooled into its present, stable form. They tell us about how successive geological strata of the planet were laid down, one on top of the other, creating a model which applies to everything in life. (In a sense, we, too, are made up of successive layers. Our current incarnation is laid down over a previous one, but sometimes it cracks and eruptions bring to the surface elements we thought long buried.)

Geography books teach us where we live in a way that makes it possible to see beyond the ends of our noses. Our city is part of a country, our country part of a continent, our continent lies on a hemisphere, that hemisphere is bounded by certain oceans and these oceans are a vital part of the whole planet: One cannot exist without the other. Contour maps reveal what political maps conceal: that all land is land, all water is water. Some lands are higher, some lower, some arid, some humid, but all land is land. There are warmer waters and cooler waters, some waters are shallow, some deep, but all water is water. In this context all artificial divisions, such as those on political maps, smack of violence.

All the people who inhabit all these lands are people. Some are blacker, some whiter, some taller, some shorter, but they are all people: the same in essence, different only in details because (as geography books teach us) that part of the Earth allotted to us is the mold from which our essence pours forth, molten and incandescent as in the first days of the planet. What form we take will be a variation molded by that place. We grow up to be placid in the tropics, frugal in the polar regions, impulsive if we are of Mediterranean stock.

Durrell intuits something of this in his letters when he talks of flatness, of melancholy; Buenos Aires forces him to adapt or die, as bacteria were once forced to contend with oxygen, forced to convert this toxin into the air they breathed. Durrell left, but those of us who choose to stay adapt our sensibilities. Some of the characteristics we develop as a result of this mutation are as extraordinary as those developed by bacteria. Tango, for example: music of Baltic melancholy which expresses the flatness, the humidity, and the nostalgia that mark us out from the rest of the Hispanic world. On this point I disagree with Grandpa: I believe what that Piazzolla plays is tango. But it is a conclusion I arrived at through reading geography books.

Between the primeval swamps and the Buenos Aires of today, centuries have passed, but time is the most relative of all measurements. (I believe all time occurs simultaneously.) We are still shapeless creatures, as shifting as the muddy coastline. We are still creatures of mud, God’s breath still fresh in our cheeks. We are still amphibious; on land we long for the sea, and longing for land we swim through the dark waters.